Claire Prentice: The question always asked – whether Hirst is any good – is meaningless

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MY CURRENT favourite TV programme is Channel 4’s Four Rooms, in which four art dealers bid for works of art brought in by members of the public.

The “art” varies from the most high-concept artefacts to pieces of tatty memorabilia, but what makes the whole thing irresistible is the behaviour of the dealers. Basilisk stares, queeny strops, hissy fits. But ignore the high camp surface and one thing emerges loud and clear. The “art market” is as cut-throat as the Bourse or Billingsgate.

Last week, an artist who has consistently played the art market to his advantage opened a major retrospective at Tate Modern in London. At the beginning of Damien Hirst’s career, in 1991, Charles Saatchi bankrolled him to make whichever piece of art he wanted. Hirst produced his shark in a tank of formaldehyde, The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living. It cost an estimated £6,000 to make, sold for £50,000, and the “pickled shark” became an iconic image of 90s “Britart”.

From then on, the artist and the market were inextricably linked, and not just because you needed to be a bond dealer to afford his work. Speculation and leverage drove his reputation up through the boom years of the 90s, and in 2008 Hirst sold his entire one-man show at Sotheby’s for £111 million. Where other artists might rage against capitalism and scorn the gallery system, Hirst has used the market to transform himself into the wealthiest artist in Britain, valued at a reported £215m.

Individual pieces by Hirst change hands for tens of millions. It helps that his work, from the bejewelled skull (£50m) to the pickled livestock, is both iconic and seemingly simple to produce. Newspapers show photos of it, complain that it isn’t art, and advertise him for free. But the question which is always asked about Hirst – whether he is any good or whether his reputation is now as wrinkly as the flesh of his preserved shark – is meaningless. You may as well ask whether Coca-Cola is any good. Hirst is a product, and last week he generated the kind of queues which normally form outside the Apple Store when a new gadget goes on sale.

If you visit the gift shop at Tate Modern you can commemorate your visit to the Hirst exhibition by purchasing a replica plastic skull for £36,800. Tate Modern is just a stone’s throw from St Paul’s, until recently home to a tented village of anti-capitalism demonstrators. This is a time when an entire generation has turned against the markets, and blames them for greed, excess and financial collapse. Odd, then, that the artist of our age is a man who has absorbed all the values of the market and flogged them right back to us. «